A history of Sydney’s Mardi Gras

By Shannon Verhagen 17 June 2016
Reading Time: 5 Minutes Print this page
This year is the 40th anniversary of Sydney’s annual Mardi Gras and follows on from the official legalisation of marriage equality in Australia.

A CROWD OF more than 400 gay, lesbian and straight people made their way along Oxford Street at 10pm on 24 June 1978. Some were dressed up. One, Ron Austin, says he wore a green Kaftan and had his hair in an afro, others were more pared-back, some were chanting slogans in support of Gay Solidarity Celebrations being held the world over. It was the first-ever Sydney Mardi Gras.

Earlier that year, Ken Davis and Anne Talve, two Sydney-based gay activists, received a letter from San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day committee asking to support the 9th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade.

The Stonewall riots in New York in 1969 had seen police enter a well-known gay hangout, the Stonewall Inn, and arrest many of the people inside, sparking huge clashes between protesters and police which continued for almost a week.

Ken convened a coalition of university-based gay groups, religious gay groups, activist group CAMP, socialist parties, and interested lesbian and gay individuals at Sydney University, with three purposes – to commemorate the Stonewall anniversary along with cities all over the world, support California’s struggle against the upsurge of the Christian Right and to demand their freedom and end discrimination. A morning street march and afternoon forum were organised for 24 June.

Mardi Gras’ first night

However upon later discussion, and a suggestion from Ron and others from CAMP, a night-time celebration, street party or ‘Mardi Gras’ was added to the day’s events.

The marchers – today affectionately known as the 78’ers – danced, skipped and walked behind a truck with a small sound system, playing gay liberation anthems such as Meg Christian’s “Ode to a Gym Teacher” and Tom Robinson’s “Glad to be Gay”.

Mardi Gras – a celebration borrowed from Catholic celebrations around lent – are now often synonymous with lavish costumes, floats and sensuality on display.

“I think 1978 was Australia’s time to stand up and say, ‘no more – we’re not going to be treated this way anymore’,” says Michele Bauer, CEO of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

“At a certain point people get tired of being pushed to the brinks and pushed to the edge and treated less equally than everyone else around them.”

Sydney’s first Mardi Gras ends in arrests

Until the early 1970s men could be imprisoned for having sex with other men in all Australian states. In 1975 South Australia decriminalised homosexuality, but it wasn’t until 1997 that the last state, Tasmania, changed its laws.

In 1978 the Mardi Gras demonstration quickly escalated when police hurried revellers down Oxford Street, confiscated the truck and pulled the wires from the sound system.

“That was the first sign there was trouble,” says Steve Warren, an original 78’er.
“Everything seemed to be OK, but we noticed a lot of paddy wagons,” recalls Steve.
Spontaneously the now large crowd headed off towards King’s Cross.

“It was basically all finished and about to be dispersed, then we realised police were surrounding us from both ends – that’s when it all turned nasty,” says Steve.

A permit had been obtained for the parade, but police still arrested 53 of the men and women.

Some of the matchers were then ‘outed’ when their names, occupations and addresses were published on the front cover of The Sydney Morning Herald.

Some lost their jobs, others became estranged from their families and a few tragically took their own lives.

Protests following first Mardi Gras 

A series of protests followed, and in April 1979 the legislation that made the original Mardi Gras arrests possible was repealed by the New South Wales parliament – people can now assemble on the streets of Sydney without a permit, they simply need to notify the police. (In March 2016 however the Baird Government increased police powers to disperse peaceful protest.)

Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras continued to evolve and with a post-parade party added in 1980, the parade moved to summer in 1981, and attendance doubled almost every year reaching 50,000 in 1984.

In 1985, the Mardi Gras was almost shut down when Australia’s AIDS Task Force appealed for it to be cancelled, but a doubling of the venue-hire fees for the post-parade party satisfied the owners and it went ahead as planned. It was dealt another blow in 2002 when it went into receivership as a result of high costs and reduced tourist numbers following the 9-11 incident in New York.

However, determined to keep the event on Sydney’s calendar, a group of community organisations banded together to fund it.

The biggest LGBTQI festival in the world

The 2016 Mardi Gras proved one of the biggest ever, with 12,500 parade participants and 300,000 onlookers. It also marked a milestone moment in Mardi Gras history.

In the weeks leading up to it, the State Parliament, Police and Fairfax Media gave the 78’ers apologies they had been waiting 38 years to hear.

On 4 March 2016 – two days before the parade – Superintendent Tony Crandell, NSW Police Force spokesperson for sexuality and gender diversity, made a statement.

“This morning I spoke with our commissioner and I have his full support in saying that the New South Wales Police Force is sorry,” Crandell said.

“Sorry for the way that the Mardi Gras was policed on the first occasion in 1978 – and for that, we apologise.

“We also acknowledge the pain and hurt that the police actions caused at that event.” 

Fairfax media also released a statement, and a number of 78’ers sat in at Parliament House as members of the NSW parliament apologised for the events that transpired in 1978.

In a show of solidarity, the 78’ers marched together in the 2016 parade to celebrate. 

“It was quite amazing to get all three [apologies],” says Steve. “But it’s not going to take away the pain and the hurt – the people who have been lost.”

During the milestone march, Steve sat at the front of the 78’ers float, and watched on with his fellow 78’ers, as the crowds cheered them through.

“It was overwhelming and amazing,” he says.

Although there is still more work to be done on a variety of fronts, Mardi Gras CEO Michele says the change in the past 38 years has been remarkable and having a celebration of it is hugely important.

“Coming together and all saying, ‘look at what we’ve done – yes, there’s still more work to be done, yes, we still have issues we want to talk about’, but also celebrating what has been done.”

Sydney Mardi Gras timeline

1969 Police raided popular gay bar Stonewall Inn in New York

1978 First Australian Mardi Gras – 53 people arrested. Most charges eventually dropped, The Sydney Morning Herald published the names, occupations and addresses of those arrested in full, outing many and causing some to lose their jobs.

1978 Further protests. 178 arrested in total (inc. first Mardi Gras)

1979 NSW Summary Offences Act legislation repealed

1979 Incident-free Mardi Gras in Sydney (about 3,000 people)

1980 Post-parade party introduced

1981 Moved forward into summer for better weather, 700 people at after-party

1981-1984 Numbers double every year

1984 50,000 people attend, 6,000 people at after-party

1985 AIDS Task Force head appealed for it to be cancelled

1989 200,000 people attend

1993 More than 500,000 people attend – getting interstate and international interest and generation $38mil for NSW economy

1994 ABC aired highlights – got stations best Sunday night ratings ever

1997 Channel 10 covered it

2002 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras went into receivership (reduced tourist numbers post Sept-11, high costs

2002 Community organisations joined to fund New Mardi Gras and continue tradition – 100 different arts events, a 70,000-person daytime picnic called Fair Day, the Parade Post-Parade Party

2006 Conde Nast named it as one of the world’s top ten costume parades in the world, Planetout named it as the best gay event in the world

2008 30th anniversary

2011 Changed name back

2012 10,000 people are in the parade

2016 NSW Government, Fairfax Media and Police apologised to 78’ers

2017 Federal Government announces postal survey to give the Australian public the opportunity to vote yes or no to marriage equality. The yes vote wins

2017 The Australian parliament legislates for marriage equality